What gender role assumptions do Gallimard and Song make about each other in M. Butterfly?

Quick answer:

Gender role assumptions about "submission" and "dominance" are clearly depicted in M. Butterfly as Gallimard and Song play out the roles of the duped American naval officer and the Chinese woman he is seduced by, respectively.

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Gallimard, as his relationship with Song becomes increasingly serious, seems to adopt more and more the stance of a "dominant" male expecting Song to be the "submissive" female, along with the corollary notion, in this context, that an Asian woman is supposed to be captivated by a white man. It's ironic because Gallimard from the start is apparently aware that these are cultural stereotypes, yet he still embraces them. Song encourages him to act in accordance with those cliches because it is part of his/her act; the role-playing insures that Gallimard will be duped completely by Song's masquerade, will therefore be completely trusting, and will reveal the political and military secrets the Chinese government is interested in.

Hwang uses, as the framework of these gender and racial assumptions, the plot of the play and opera Madame Butterfly. The story of M. Butterfly is a well-known cultural trope in the West, dealing as it does with an Asian woman who is seduced by an American naval officer, has a child by him, and then commits suicide when he abandons her. Gallimard links his relationship with Song to this story, calling her Butterfly and somehow accepting her story that she/he is pregnant by him. Throughout their affair, Song deliberately overplays the expected female and cultural submissiveness, referring to herself as Gallimard's "slave" and telling him that she has been taught to please him in a special "Chinese" way. It all works, of course, and Gallimard becomes the perfect dupe. When the deception is revealed, Gallimard eventually accepts the reversal of the roles implicit in their affair and kills himself.

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Gallimard assumes that western men are intellectually and physically superior to eastern men in all ways, and that eastern women will automatically be attracted to western men because of this innate superiority. Because of these assumptions, Gallimard finds it easy to presume that Song loves him and enjoys playing the role of dominant member of the partnership. He sees no reason to pretend to be sensitive to or concerned about Song's feelings or apprehensions.

Song Liling: I am slightly afraid of scandal.
Rene Gallimard: What are we doing that's scandalous?
Song Liling: I'm entertaining you in my parlor.
Rene Gallimard: Where I come from, that would hardly be construed as...
Song Liling: You come from France. France is a country living in the modern era, perhaps even ahead of it. China is a nation whose soul is firmly rooted 2000 years in the past. What I do - even pouring tea for you now - it has implications. Please go. Please, Monsieur Gallimard...

Song, playing the role of the eastern woman, gains the information "she" craves by going along with Gallimard's preconceived notions of the appropriate behaviors for one in "her" position. "She" is subservient and yields to Gallimard's orders with the meekness expected of one in "her" position.

Rene Gallimard: You made me see the beauty of the story, of her death. It's, it's pure sacrifice. He's not worthy of it, but what can she do? She loves him so much. It's very beautiful.
Song Liling: Well, yes, to a Westerner.
Rene Gallimard: I beg your pardon?
Song Liling: It's one of your favorite fantasies, isn't it? The submissive Oriental woman and the cruel white man.


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